I've just united Italy after over a century of bloody conflicts. From Doge of The Serene Republic of Venice to the first King of Italy -- it's quite the step up. Along the way, I've upset the gargantuan Holy Roman Empire, gone to war with the Papal State, conquered Serbia, and inadvertently helped France take over most of Spain. Now I've got the vast Ottoman Empire knocking at my door, and I'm about to lose everything.
Europa Universalis IV is a stage for all sorts of savage political and war-time drama. Once upon a time the franchise was the providence of grognards, history aficionados, and lovers of strategy board games, but times have changed. Everybody and their mum seems to love Game of Thrones -- which, with its wars, politics, and intrigue is not so far removed from Europa Universalis -- and Paradox has done the unthinkable by making this fourth iteration user-friendly, opening the doors to the grubby masses.
It remains daunting, impossibly huge, and unapologetically complex, but it might very well be one of the most scintillating and rewarding strategy games I've plonked myself down to play from sunrise to sunset. I only say "might" because if I said it definitely was, you'd probably just bugger off and play it instead of sitting patiently for me to confirm this at the very end of the review like the terrible tease that I am.
Europa Universalis IV (PC)
Developer: Paradox Development Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Released: August 14, 2013
Maps and menus are damn sexy, right? If your response to that was "God, no" then you're looking at the wrong ones. The map and menus of Europa Universalis are windows into the stories of nations, and ones that you won't have to spend hours wrestling with to comprehend.
Fluctuating borders, gigantic mountain ranges, continents changing with the seasons -- the world has never looked so alive in a grand strategy title. It's so good looking, in fact, that I spend most of my time playing in the regular terrain mode, not wanting the various trade, political, and religious overlays to spoil the gorgeous vista. I pause the game and switch when I need more information, but I quickly go back to ogling the Alps or admiring the way the leaves turn orange during Autumn.
The menus don't have the same visual appeal, but the way that they break down the complex facets of Europa Universalis into easily discernible information makes them just as impressive.
At a glance, a high inflation rate might just look like a random percentage, but in reality it's the result of a decade-long war and loans constantly being taken out to pay for a huge mercenary army. Or perhaps it's the result of greed, with the nation creating too many gold mines and mismanaging the economy. Merely hovering over the inflation number reveals the reason the nation is in dire straits.
This convenience extends to the entire interface. There remains a lot to take in, as the game flings a huge array of information at players the moment they take control of a nation, but between the tips tab, robust tutorial, and the way the information is elegantly broken down for easy consumption, it's not nearly as intimidating as its predecessor.
With the interface helping rather than hindering, newcomers and old hats alike can jump in and lead their chosen nation -- out of almost any era-appropriate nation you can think off, from England to the Aztec Empire -- from 15th century to the 19th century without freaking out when their peasants start rioting for no particular reason, or another power declares war out of the blue, simply because such things don't happen. There's always an underlying reason, and it can always be found.
Europa Universalis lavishes players with countless missions, offering some handy direction. At any time, there are several missions available, all logical for the nation they are given to and the situation it's in. England might get a mission to conquer territory in France that it lost during the Hundred Years' War, or after years of economic mismanagement, any nation might be offered a mission to lower inflation.
Not merely a guiding hand, missions result in rewards like increased prestige -- which affects the opinions other countries have of you -- or a higher military tradition, buffing the armed forces.
This new addition doesn't change the fact that Europa Universalis has always been about setting your own goals, encouraging players to live out their "what if?" historical fantasies. And with there being no set victory conditions, it's less about winning or losing and more about the journey.
My attempt to turn Scotland into a wealthy colonial power completely failed when England declared war in the 1600s and my French allies refused to help me. My burgeoning colonial holdings were gobbled up, and soon the English marched into Scotland and put my cities to the torch. I didn't feel like I'd "lost" the game, however. That story had merely ended violently instead of ending with an unlikely Scottish empire. That didn't make it any less entertaining or worthwhile.
Beneath the historical narrative lies a slew of fine-tuned, interconnected systems. As Venice, my first goal was to get fat and rich from trade. As a Merchant Republic I didn't have to wait for leaders to die before a new one took over, as I could choose a new Doge during frequent elections, so the first chance I got, I installed the bureaucratic candidate. The new Doge generated a lot of administrative points, which in turn I was able to spend on increasing my administrative technology.
The administrative upgrades increased the efficiency of my realm, but more importantly: it unlocked my first national idea, letting me customize my realm. I could have explored the espionage ideas, the variety of military ones, or invested in colonization, but instead I opted for the trade idea.
Spending more administrative points eventually conferred boons like increased trade power and more merchants, letting me collect money from trade nodes in my own territory, or steer trade from foreign nodes back to Venice. The basic principle of trade is that you use your power to direct or dip into revenue, but it becomes a bit more complex when the New World is discovered, as you unlock more nodes and attempt to juggle an increasingly large trade network.
Nice and wealthy, I looked at my pitiful neighbours and decided to dabble in a spot of conquest, and again the monarch points, national ideas, and technology came into play. I switched between military and diplomatic Doges, spending the points generated on quelling rebellions, fielding more generals, demanding more land and money from peace negotiations, gaining more advanced military technology, and working my way down a military-focused national idea pillar.
Viewed separately, these systems might seem a tad mind-boggling, but considered as one system where every action ties into another, it's a lot easier to wrap your noggin around. It remains intricate and complex, but entirely logical -- once you spot the threads that connect everything from trade to conquest together, it becomes more about mastering them and learning how to exploit them than figuring out how they work.
Playing with these systems often results in some tough decisions. "Do I spend my military points to stamp out a potential rebellion, or do I upgrade my soldiers so I can face a threat amassing on my border?" The challenge is in identifying the most immediate concerns and then planning for others. Much of my time with Europa Universalis has been spent with the game paused, pouring over menus, investigating my neighbors, and fretting over what my next step will be. It can be intense and exhausting, but the rewards of outsmarting a devious foe or surviving an invasion from a significantly more powerful country make it worthwhile.
Europa Universalis IV's greatest triumph -- beyond being a deep grand strategy title that doesn't obfuscate everything and leave newcomers weeping in the corner -- is how it makes every new game feel like a new game. Some nations, like England, France, and The Ottomans have clearly had more time spent on making them distinct, but even smaller powers like Native American tribes get their own unique units, even though less attention has been paid to their missions and historical events.
They all offer new experiences, however. Whether it's because of the part of the world they are situated in, the player-defined goals, or how the AI nations around them are acting -- there's always a surprise ready to assault you. Old friends can turn into enemies because they fear your conquering ways -- nations now hold grudges that can last for lifetimes -- or your entire population could rise up against you because they are sick of frequent wars, national debt, or feel like they are living under a tyrant.
Few plans can go off without a hitch, because Europa Universalis is such a reactive game. You're not playing in a vacuum; you're playing with hundreds of nations with diverse populations, and they've all got their own goals and ambitions. Rivalries develop over time, coalitions pop up, with your neighbors teaming up against you, and religions violently collide. Something is always going on, and it's not always a given that you'll be able to control it.
Even taking the reins of the same country multiple times can result in a completely different jaunt through history. I've played as Venice twice now, and the first time -- which you can read about here -- ended with Austria utterly spanking me, but on my second attempt, Austria was completely smashed by France and I, the Holy Roman Empire ended up being controlled by Bohemia, and I united Italy.
Adding multiplayer into the equation makes thing even more unpredictable, and if you've read any of my articles recounting my LAN experiences with the game, you'll know that I was looking forward to spending a lot of my time with Europa Universalis IV online. Lamentably, the fates have conspired against me.
Using Steam instead of the atrocious metaserver from previous Paradox Development Studio games, the multiplayer promised to be a lot more stable and nowhere near as fiddly as past iterations. There's even a handy hot-join option, letting players jump into a game-in-progress without having to faff about. I've not been able to test it at all, however, as I can't even see the games my chums are hosting, nor can I connect via IP. I know that a lot of folk are enjoying the multiplayer with almost no issues, but I'm not one of them.
Despite the multiplayer issues I've encountered, Europa Universalis IV has been the most stable and bug-free Paradox title I've ever played. I spotted some Belgian troops going completely crazy, moving back and forth in the same provinces for an entire year, and when I first started playing clicking on colonial provinces would bring up no information, and I had to click on the region next to them, but since the first week I've not seen anything like that again. Even more surprising is that I haven't crashed once.
I'm quite willing to admit that I've become obsessed with Europa Universalis IV. When I'm not talking about it, I'm desperate to bring it up, and when I chat to someone that I know for a fact plays it, I'll happily natter away for hours, regaling them with the history of my nations, demanding that they entertain me with tales of their own.
Paradox Development Studio has shown that it understands grand strategy like no other studio. Europa Universalis IV is the defining game in the genre, laying out the whole world in front of players and just letting them have at it. It's a polished, almost terrifyingly vast title that gets its hooks in you the moment you click on that first country, and simply refuses to let go. Now, if you don't mind, I've got some peasants to oppress.